Considering the phenomenon of home-grown directors who punch above their weight on American soil - Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs, Leaving Las Vegas), Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), Bernard Rose (Ivansxtc) - a screenwriter friend opined: "How come Brits never make movies like those when they stay at home?"
Not that passing through US immigration is enough on its own to confer artistic excellence and psychological insight on a film-maker. Alfred Hitchcock was already a genius before he went to America. Neil Jordan's US work has been dedicated to unleashing his inner hack. And Figgis had to endure a highly public Hollywood scolding over Mr Jones before the industry kissed him better for Leaving Las Vegas. But when it works, there is a tension between admiration and disdain, experienced by Britain towards the US, which is a gift to forensic detachment. Take that "big four" of pictures made by Brits in America, which are among the most probing in all cinema: Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success, John Boorman's Point Blank and Stephen Frears's The Grifters.
It can't be a coincidence that all except The Night of the Hunter have stakes of varying sizes in film noir; it's a genre that provides a fruitful angle from which artists of any nationality can expose American dreams as nightmares in disguise. The outsider mentality inherent in a foreign director is lent another dimension by film noir: it chimes with the genre's staple character of the misfit and voyeur. (That perpetual outsider Terence Davies will be the next Brit to go noir when he adapts Ed McBain's He Who Hesitates.) It may also spring from an extension of the tired adage about two countries divided by a common language; this applies equally to our cinematic vocabulary, which can feel starker and more uncompromising when it describes an American subject or setting.
That proves partly to be the case with The Killer Inside Me, Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1952 noir novel about a sheriff who is unassuming to the point of blandness, but with a secretly psychopathic side. If the source material is American, the method of realising it on screen follows a more typically European model.
The difference today, as opposed to the 1960s of Point Blank, is that the old geographical divisions have become less distinct. The Killer Inside Me has its virtues, not to mention that pointlessness specific to anything that sets out to show how despicable humanity can be, but how culturally enshrined are they? Winterbottom, in his first movie shot in the US, places us fully in the head of a sadist, but there's nothing in his film that could not have come from Lodge Kerrigan, the American director whose psychological case studies include Clean, Shaven and Keane.
The Grifters was also adapted from Thompson, but Winterbottom's film retains more of the writer's sharp corners and abrasive surfaces. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a small-town sheriff in 1950s Texas, whose off-white Stetson casts a shadow that slices his face in half; it's a reflection of his personality, torn between civility and cruelty. "All I can do is wait until I split right down the middle," he confesses in that high, uncertain voice which people use when they are lying, but which is Lou's only mode of address. The novel made it clear that Lou had form (he referred to his condition as "the sickness"). The film hints at this merely through the casualness with which he pulls on a pair of black gloves as he shoots
the breeze with the woman whose face he is about to demolish.
In common with the novel, the picture fastidiously traces Lou's appetites back to a childhood in which he was both abused and incipient abuser, while insisting that nothing can explain his behaviour. This feels plausible on the page, where readers have direct access to Lou's thoughts, however deluded. In cinema, there are other elements that can get in the way.
Winterbottom cleverly allows Lou to dictate the soundtrack at key moments, like someone cueing up the perfect iPod playlist for a road trip or a day at the beach. It is Lou's own piano playing that accompanies his nocturnal journey to kill Joyce (Jessica Alba), a prostitute with whom he has been having an affair. And it is his rendition of "Shame on You" that blurs into the recorded version (by Spade Cooley and the Western Swing Dance Gang) when he decides to end things, in the most comprehensive way possible, with his sweetie-pie fiancée, Amy (Kate Hudson).
All the same, if Winterbottom really wanted to create a film immersed in Lou's psyche, he should have cut out any contradictory material. That would mean no gazing down dreamily from the heavens at the Dallas traffic, no cuts to the point of view of a blackmailer spying on Lou. The film cleaves to Lou's perspective by showing Amy outside the home on a few brief occasions, and Joyce only when she is being borne on a stretcher; these women exist for Lou primarily in the bedroom, where he beats them with belts or has sex with them while covering their faces with his hands. Winterbottom also brings to the material his great facility with montages, as displayed in Jude and Wonderland. As Lou casts his mind back over his summery salad days with Joyce, we see a murderer's self-delusion at work. Like a ruthless film editor, he leaves whatever doesn't fit on the cutting-room floor and prints the lie.
The Killer Inside Me has become notorious for two scenes of protracted brutality, which succeed in reclaiming violence, and violence against women in particular (men are mostly killed swiftly and out of sight), from the sanitised mainstream. But to what end? It feels like explaining toothache to someone by pinning them down and driving a drill into their upper molars.
Ryan Gilbey blogs about film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital